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Sustainable automation

Automation is being used by some as a ‘Trojan horse’ for deregulation and the free market.

State intervention

They wrongly argue that if you need automation to increase safety, and to automate you must deregulate, then deregulation equates to safety.

Governments around the world continue to demonstrate that state finance, leadership and regulation is needed to ensure that automation is safe and creates and sustains good jobs:

  • The US government has committed $4 billion over the next ten years to accelerate the development and implementation of fully autonomous vehicles;
  • The national “High-Tech Strategy” has been launched in Germany, aiming to make the country a global centre for innovation in the sector; and,
  • In China, the government has addressed its lack of regulation in the industry and is currently drawing up a new regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles.

Different forms of automation have different infrastructural demands. Autonomy requires lower spending on infrastructure, but more funding for advanced research and development by technology manufacturers and developers. Connectivity requires higher spending on network infrastructure (such as 5G and satellite technology) but relatively less financial support for private sector research and development.

International standardisation of technology, taxation and regulation, is needed for automation to become the principle mover of trade. The failure of national governments to agree liability laws for automation means cross-border standardisation and use remains a distant prospect.

Automation demands a tripartite approach. Government, the transport companies and unions must cooperate to make automation sustainable. Permit systems for firms adopting new technologies should be considered and industrial agreements must reflect these changes.

Close skill gaps

Governments and unions must combine to deliver education and training to workers to close potential skills gaps. Worker access to education and training will determine the sustainability, fairness and efficiency of the employment shift. Education and training should focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills, and workers’ rights.

The UK is one of the most advanced research centres for automation. Without intervention, Transport Systems Catapult estimates that £50 billion in GDP per annum, or 2% of GDP in 2016, could be lost to gaps in skills.

Establish rules and ethical standards

Without agreed definitions of automation technologies and clear rules on ethical standards, the owners and developers of the technology will be left to programme machines to make morally complex and life-threating decisions.

Governments could follow the example provided by the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, which appointed an Ethics Commission, consisting of experts of philosophy, theology, law and engineering, which has developed guidelines, including:

  • “Damage to property or harm to animals must always take precedence over personal injury”
  • When injury to persons cannot be avoided, there must be “no distinction based on person features (age, gender, etc.).”
  • There must be “no offsetting of victims against one another, nor must non-involved parties be sacrificed by parties involved in the generation of mobility risks.”
  • Provided that the previous conditions are met, “general programming to reduce the number of personal injuries could be justifiable”

Data protection and transparency

Transparency of data and algorithms protects the users of autonomous technology, the public, and operators and manufacturers. Without transparency, accidents lack explanation, complicating fixes, damaging public trust and slowing industry adoption.

The public should be able to access the data inputs and outcomes of autonomous transport using existing freedom of information legislation. Effective sharing of data is also critical to maximise the public good; data generated by autonomous transport can be used for traffic management and identifying potential network improvements.

Cyber security and data protection must be enshrined in both private and public data storage to ensure the safety of transport workers and the public. The right to individuals’ privacy should be respected.

New models of digital capital ownership

Ownership of technology determines the distribution of its benefits. Governments and unions should promote worker ownership of technology. Policymakers should consider ‘Citizens Wealth Funds’ to oversee public investment in company shares, wage earner funds similar to those in Sweden’s ‘Meidner Plan’, and Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs). Unions should seek to participate in cooperatives and other emerging hybrid forms of ownership.

Environmental safeguards

The US National Research Council (NRC) estimates that automation offers possible fuel savings of 4-10%. However, automation is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of transport, offsetting potential savings. A subsequent increase in last-mile transport would also lead to greater environmental demands on urban areas.

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